Singers of Different Tunes
Wed, 10/20/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer. From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, NY.
Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer. From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, NY.

“My parents would have been a well-matched pair,” claimed the Yiddish writer, Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944), “if my mother had been my father and my father my mother.” His now (but not then) more famous brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), concurred. And so did their much less-known sister, Esther Singer Kreitman (1891-1954). They agreed about very little else. The brothers were close both emotionally and geographically; their sister remained in Europe and apart from them. Singer and Kreitman fled the religious environment in which they were raised and never seemed to have missed it; Bashevis fled, too, but he continued to view it as a cohesive, moral force. Yet all three shared a view of their parents. Each of them called their father a batlen — impractical, inefficient, innocent; each described their mother as the less emotional, more intellectual and more aloof parent (“a froy mit a mansbilishn kop,” — a woman with a masculine head — Israel Joshua wrote); each believed that their foundational influences resulted from the mismatch between their father’s chasidic fervor and their mother’s misnagdic rationalism.

Three Yiddish novelists and short-story writers, siblings born of the same mother and father and raised in the same religious and social environment offer an extraordinary opportunity to consider both the commonalities and differences in the family saga. We get such opportunities rarely. Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Bronte are more familiar to readers of English; William, Henry and Alice James perhaps even more so. The reputations of the latter family mirror that of the Singers: two famous male writers, canonical in their respective literatures, and one sister considered to be mad or hysterical or, at least, less talented than her siblings.

This is probably as good a place as any to offer at least a partial, personal disclosure. I have always been known as “Sam’s sister,” but he is rarely introduced as “Anita’s brother.” I am happily proud of the connection (I like my brother a lot and there is yikhes — prestige and lineage — in the association). And yet, each time, I can’t help noticing that, well into middle age, I’m still his little sister. It turns out that we’re completely typical in this imbalance. Studies of autobiographical writings reveal that the eldest sibling rarely mentions the younger though the younger one invariably considers the elder. This is especially true if the eldest is male.

It should come as no surprise that birth order and gender matter even more than shared genes and social environment. Or that memories of a shared past can be wildly divergent.

Autobiographical writings by the Singer siblings underscore these observations in often surprising ways. Esther was the firstborn, but pride of place was unquestionably with Israel Joshua, the eldest son born two years after her. Two sisters followed him and both died tragically young of scarlet fever. Isaac was born 11 years after his brother and he was followed by another brother, Moyshe (1906-1944?), who was the only one to remain within the family fold, staying in Poland, eschewing the rebellion with which his siblings were identified, and following his father into the rabbinate. He was rarely mentioned in the works of his brothers and sister. Moyshe and their mother died during World War II, probably while fleeing the Nazis.

Isaac Bashevis Singer admired his brother’s writing, though he was otherwise notoriously critical of Yiddish writers. He credited (incorrectly) I.J. Singer with having introduced sexuality into Yiddish literature and of having freed it from the constraints of politics. When he began writing, he took the name Bashevis to distinguish himself from his brother who had preceded him into Warsaw’s literary milieu and then to New York. Their mother’s name was Batsheva and in choosing to call himself Batsheva’s son he effectively erased the name of their father, Pinchas Mendl. Bashevis had little to say about his sister, though what he did say is extraordinarily revealing. She was regarded as the family hysteric, subject to nervous breakdowns, perhaps, as Bashevis claimed, a madwoman, an epileptic or someone possessed by a dybbuk. He recognized that she had some literary talent, but saw that revealed not in her novels, stories or translations into Yiddish, but rather in her humorous, vivid letters home. Consigning her to “women’s genres” — letters, diaries, memoirs — is a familiar method of dismissing her from the ranks of serious, modernist writers. He referred to her literary works by acknowledging, grudgingly, that she was “quite a talented authoress and wrote several books that were not at all bad.” In his autobiographical “In My Father’s Court,” he wrote that “my sister suspected my mother of not loving her, which was untrue, but actually they were incompatible.” The original Yiddish version in “Mayn Tatns Beyzdn Shtub” has a very different view of this relationship. “Zi hot khoyshed geven az di mame hot zi nisht lib,” he wrote. “Dos iz nisht geven emes, ober s’iz emes az di mame hot zi nisht gekont fartrogn.” Accurately translated, the Yiddish contends that “she suspected that our mother didn’t love her. That was untrue, but it is true that our mother couldn’t bear her.” The family’s dynamics are nowhere more poignantly expressed than in this assertion of tension and intolerance.

Writing during Esther’s lifetime, Israel Joshua Singer referred to his sister only to acknowledge the tension between them, attributing it to what he understood as her jealousy at being ignored in favor of her younger brothers. Kreitman’s relationship with them can be most clearly discerned in her semi-autobiographical novel, “Der Sheydim Tants” (Dance of the Demons). Translated by her son, the book lost some of its air of ambiguity and menace when it was tamed under the title “Deborah,” the name of its protagonist. The novel depicts Deborah’s desire to break free of the restrictions of her home and religion, to escape the roles of household drudge and household problem, to contend with the madness or depression that threaten to overwhelm her and to acquire an education. Deborah has only one younger brother in this novel, the favored child who ridicules and teases her, and who is clearly modeled after Israel Joshua. Her situation is best summed up at the beginning of the novel when their father speaks of his expectation that his son will grow up to be a great Talmudist and responds to Deborah’s question about what she will one day become by declaring, “Nothing, of course!”

Gender roles plagued each of the Singer siblings. Bashevis thought he and his brother had finally restored those roles to their traditional order, refusing the feminine qualities they saw in their father and embracing their mother’s masculine characteristics. In this view, Esther was as emotionally volatile as their father; the brothers were as unsentimental and intellectual as their mother. It is doubtful that Kreitman herself would have agreed with this perspective. But, by living longer and later than his siblings, Bashevis literally had the last word. I.J. Singer’s sudden death at the age of 50 in the midst of World War II, Moyshe’s death (probably in the same year) because of the war and Esther’s death a decade later left Bashevis as the only survivor of the family. He was understandably more inclined than his siblings to protect the memory “Of A World That Is No More,” as his brother’s memoir was titled.

Bashevis is known as a storyteller with a disturbing penchant for describing Jews who transgress: thieves, prostitutes, disreputable businessmen, corrupt rabbis, men and women who behave as if their sexual transgressions will hasten the coming of the Messiah or, at least, make them happy. Yet, compared to his brother and sister, and no doubt because of them, his works are more likely to romanticize the traditional Eastern European Jewish world and to offer a more idealized core of family reminiscences.

“Happy families are all alike,” wrote Tolstoy in the resonant first line of “Anna Karenina.” He went on to declare that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The first kind of family, he suggested, has rarely led to interesting stories; the latter has been the inspiration for many diverse works. The Singers certainly illustrate the truth of Tolstoy’s observation. It is, of course, foolish to speculate about what kinds of work they might have written if their parents had made a happier match. Perhaps Bashevis would not have adapted a woman’s name. Perhaps Israel Joshua, when he turned to journalistic essays, would not have written under his wife’s maiden name, G. Kuper, while suppressing the full feminine name, Genya. Perhaps Kreitman would not have married out of desperation, in order to get away from her home, or she might not have chosen, early in her career, to translate George Bernard Shaw’s “Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism” into Yiddish. Perhaps none of them would have written at all. But, like much else about this prolific family, that is impossible to know. Fortunately, these dynamics have produced some of the most important works of modern Yiddish literature.

Anita Norich is a professor of English language and literature and of Judaic studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of “Discovering Exile: Yiddish and Jewish American Literature in America During the Holocaust” (Stanford, 2007) and “Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer” (Indiana University Press, 1991) and co-editor of “Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures” (Harvard and JTS, 1992).